Paul (Saint) 5 BCE–67 CE

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Paul (Saint)
5 bce–67 ce

Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, vas electionis (the chosen vessel), was born Saul in Tarsus, Cilicia, in present-day Turkey, circa 5 bce. He was trained and educated in rabbinical school in strict observance of Jewish Law, and earned a living as a tentmaker, a trade he inherited from his father. The major event in his life was his conversion on the road to Damascus, as narrated in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles, after which he changed his name to Paul and became an ardent follower of Christ. He preached to the Jews and to the Gentiles, and his missionary journeys led him to Asia Minor, Greece, Malta, Rome, and even Spain. He was beheaded in Rome around 67 ce under the Emperor Nero.

As a Jew of the Diaspora, Paul spoke and wrote Greek, the language of his Epistles, whose doctrine became the basis of Christian theology. Paul did not know Christ personally, though he lived during his lifetime; yet, in his writings he insists that his call as an apostle came directly from the Risen Christ and that his teaching is of divine origin, allowing him to distinguish himself from false apostles. Because Paul belonged to Hellenistic Judaism, which had developed in the synagogues of the Diaspora independently of Palestinian Judaism, his teachings contain Gnostic and esoteric elements that are also present in the New Testament Gospels, in the Apocalypse, and in writings of the early church. But Paul never attributed to God the creation of evil or of original sin. Instead, he believed in the tripartite division of the human into body, soul, and spirit (sóma, psyché, pneuma; 1 Thess. 5:23), and he strongly affirmed the resurrection in a "glorious body" (2 Cor. 3:1-18). For him, the Old Law is fulfilled with the dispensation of the Spirit, and the Spirit is Jesus, the Messiah, the New Adam, and the New Law.

Paul's views on women, marriage, divorce, incest, sex, and immorality are contained primarily in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20, 7:1-40, and 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-33; Galatians 3:23-29; and Timothy 2:11-15. In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul states his central argument against fornication among the Corinthians based on his theology of the human body as the "Body of Christ." He forcefully condemns sex with prostitutes, because, during the Corinthians' pagan rites at the festival in honor of Aphrodite, her followers engaged in public revels and in open sexual intercourse with prostitutes. Understood within this context, Paul's position is not a prohibition on sexual intercourse proper, but a condemnation of ritualistic acts involving open fornication, and it is not connected to any Gnostic belief on the impurity of matter. In 1 Corinthians 7-14, Paul expresses his firm belief that celibacy is the better way, stating, "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (7:6). Thus, for those who wish to be married, be they widows or single, "it is better to marry than be aflame with passion" (7:8). If, in a couple, a partner is an unbeliever, the other should not divorce, because the unbeliever is consecrated through the partner. For the unmarried, he prefers celibacy, because "the appointed time has grown very short," and dealing seriously with marriage hinders dedication to Christ. In this case, Paul is obviously thinking of an immediate return of Christ, the Parousia (Second Coming). But he clearly states that if one marries, one does not sin: "he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage does better"; further, if a wife becomes a widow, "she is free to remarry to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think I have the Spirit of God" (7:38-40).

Regarding the status of women in society and within the church, Paul's views present ambiguities. No doubt, his teachings were received in accordance with and conditioned by the mores of the Middle Ages, in which the status of women was one of submission and inferiority. Paul's teachings on women have been nevertheless misinterpreted because of the Aristotelian influence on Christianity through Aquinas, yet Paul can also be seen clearly as an advocate of parity between the sexes. In Ephesians 5:22-33, when Paul states that a wife must be subject to the husband as to the head, he establishes an analogy, Christ = man, Church = wife, thus, the superiority of one over the other. Some commentators, however, have indicated that this affirmation was determined by the deteriorating conditions of marriage prevalent in Jewish and Greek societies. In Greece family life and fidelity were nearly extinct, and in Rome men and women engaged in numerous divorces; thus Juvenal speaks of a woman who had eight husbands in five years, and Jerome mentions one with twenty-three husbands. Paul would then have been reacting to these conditions by trying to provide a certain order; in the next passage, in fact, he speaks of the relations of children and parents (6:1-4). The analogy, therefore, is created in terms of love, not subjugation.

Christocentrism determines his views on women, and it is based on love and sacrifice. According to William Barclay (1976), while Paul said that "the husband is the head of the wife, he also said that the husband must love the wife as Christ loved the Church, with a love that never recognizes the tyranny of control, but which is ready to make any sacrifice for her good" (p. 174). This is confirmed and enhanced by what Paul says in Galatians 3:23-29—there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, man and woman, and all are children of God through faith, "omnes enim filii Dei estis per fidem." Indeed, filii should be translated here as children, not sons. As a rabbinical scholar, Paul knew the traditional Jewish prayer thanking God for not being a Gentile or a woman, and he reversed it with these words. In the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, for example, Thecla, a Pauline convert, abandons her fiancé, dons male clothing and is off in the world to evangelize. Thus it is "simplistic" to declare Paul either "a downright misogynist or the champion of women," as the feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether has pointed out. Phyllis Trible (2006), for instance, affirms that these texts are "historically conditioned," and that the apostle may well have been "divided on the subject [of sexual egalitarianism]. Paul never made up his mind on it, and the post-Pauline Church went with the inferior side of it" (p. 51).

Indeed the best approach to the teachings of Paul on women is to view them in the context of each generation, because freedom and equality are basic tenets of the New Testament and its writers. Prophetically, Paul advocated knowledge "face to face," but the church fathers and traditionalist teachings have mirrored their societies in such a way that social justice, including the rights of women, has been a very protracted and painful process. Lesly F. Massey (1989) points out that in Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul expresses his longing for "the day when the Church would come of age, when its doctrine and its members would display the kind of maturity that would radiate love" (p. 135). This position is coherent with what 1 Corinthians 13:13 eloquently expresses: "without love, I am nothing."

see also Catholicism; Christianity, Early and Medieval.


Barclay, William. 1976. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. Rev. edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Bristow, John Temple. 1988. What Paul Really Said about Women. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kilgallen, John J. 1987. First Corinthians: An Introduction and Study Guide. New York: Paulist Press.

Massey, Lesly F. 1989. Women and the New Testament: An Analysis of Scripture in Light of New Testament Era Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. "St. Paul, Friend or Enemy of Women." Beliefnet. Available from

Trible, Phyllis. 2006. "Wrestling with Scripture." Interview in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April, 46-52, 76-77.

Walter, Eugen. 1971. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. Simon and Erika Young. London: Sheed and Ward.

Wilson, A. N. 1997. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. New York: Norton.

                                     Giuseppe Di Scipio